Memory As Collage

Sam van Zweden

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In Enough About You: Notes Toward the New Autobiography, David Shields says, “As a writer, I love language as much as any element in the universe, but I also have trouble living anywhere other than in language. If I’m not writing it down, experience doesn’t really register.” I can relate to this.

I try to pin down experience for fear of losing it. Convinced my sieve-mind will filter out the most precious pieces, I keep various written tracks of what’s happening. In its most basic form, this means that I write things down and chronicle my living in something that sits between a captain’s log and a teenager’s diary. This feeds my Writer’s Mind, which hovers, always, narrating my life as I live it; pre-forming what will be written later. Writing things down also helps me think through, elevating experience to a more meaningful, useful level. I’m less victim to the indifference of the world – I lived, and it meant something. Perhaps this is why, when I try to remember, I find it comforting to draw on what I’ve written. With the help of this record, things look more real.

I recently travelled around the USA for about a month, and I took no notes in New Orleans. None. I had intended to write about my experiences – before setting off, I imagined it would be a formative time (buying into that dominant travel narrative), or at the very least more interesting than what normally happens at home. It seemed worth recording.

So I was shocked when I found myself entirely disinclined to write. The lived experience felt like it would trump any fallibility of memory – surely all this wonderful new stuff was making such an impression that I’d remember it all. Any time spent taking notes felt like time spent away from the immediacy of life. So I took no notes in New Orleans. Actually, I took no notes in Las Vegas either. Or Flagstaff, aside from work stuff. I wrote nothing about how my body reacted to altitude, or how I felt inconsequential but safe among the snowy peaks and turning autumn leaves. I didn’t scribble anything about the strangeness of difference, how this world looked familiar but was subtly alien – traffic lights, buses, coffee, tipping, sleeper train, airport security.

Two weeks into the month, my journal contained some jetlagged thoughts on birds I’d seen wheeling over Union Station, and notes from the NonfictioNOW conference I’d received City of Literature travel fund grant money to attend in the first week of the trip. That was all. It took me until the second half of four days in Washington DC to realise that my recollection of the trip was sliding away under the weight of too many new memories. All that living was vibrant and alive in my memory, but it was, at the same time, also like the chalk paintings in Mary Poppins as they begin to melt in the rain. Soon, all of my time in New Orleans blended together and I couldn’t remember which day we’d been to the swamp, which day we’d walked out to the cemetery, which day we’d followed the Mississippi and listened to a guided tour passing by, gleaning insider knowledge of New Orleans that we hadn’t paid for. Colour remained, but it had no defined edges.

As a memoirist (or at least, a writer preoccupied with representation of self on the page), my note-keeping isn’t just a weird tic, but an essential body of evidence. Without this evidence from a large portion of my trip, I felt unanchored. Adrift – like I’d only half-lived the experience in the first place. I had to find other ways to remember.

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I do have one note from Flagstaff: “28-10-15: In Walmart, I cannot stop laughing at the weird specificity of this very American department store. It’s ridiculous. But is the rotating display case full of semi-automatic rifles the same kind of ridiculous as the can of liquid ‘condensed cheddar cheese’? Is the trail mix full of M&Ms the same kind of ridiculous as our later obtaining phones without ID?

So I remember the cheddar and I remember the guns. And my laughter. The writing of these remembered Walmart products drew on the similarities and differences between them. The only other thing that returns to me from that morbidly curious visit to Walmart, which I haven’t included in this journal note, is a pair of waterproof overalls with built-in gumboots. Like a fishing onesie.

Writing is curated and incomplete. I picked the liquid cheese and the firearms to commit to my notebook. My mind has, for some reason or other, retained the overalls, but everything else in the store has been discarded (on writing this, of course: jumbo candy bags for Halloween, and a few crates of sad-looking fresh fruit and vegetables come to mind, to prove me wrong). I wonder, if I hadn’t taken this note, whether I’d remember more about Walmart.

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A ticket stub. I have a ticket stub from a plantation tour. The stub shows the front of the main house, and the massive oaks bowing over the driveway. Perhaps I couldn’t have done this image justice in words anyway. The stub goes in my journal, in place of having written that day.

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Alain de Botton once tweeted that “Most of our childhood is stored not in photos, but in certain biscuits, lights of day, smells, textures of carpet…”. Perhaps this sentiment’s just a re-imagining of Proust’s thesis; In Search of Lost Time’s narrator’s childhood is stored in lime blossom tea and a madeleine. If I could track down the right photos, the biscuits and windows and smells and carpets, could I then remember New Orleans, Las Vegas and Flagstaff more clearly? Without the written word that I lean upon so heavily, where does my memory of that time, and those places, live? What can I rely upon to help me remember, and how can I elevate the meaning of what I lived without having taken notes?

“I didn’t scribble anything about the strangeness of difference, how this world looked familiar but was subtly alien – traffic lights, buses, coffee, tipping, sleeper train, airport security.”

By the end of my time in Washington DC, I had resumed writing daily. I hoped to be able to retroactively piece together the days I’d missed, turning to the artifacts I’d gathered. While I took no notes in New Orleans, I did tweet. I kept ticket stubs, and receipts, and I remember the smell of the beignets. Perhaps these stand in, in place of biscuits, lamps, scents, and carpets. Perhaps this fragmented debris of life is more solid than the incompleteness of writing.

A tweet, timestamped 8.03am on the 7th November: “Sitting. Watching. Listening. Nothing else”, with a picture of a street band in a park. Unlike writing, a photograph is solid. I pointed my phone at the experience and froze it for a second.

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A blue wrist-band, like the rubber kind emblazoned with charity names and sold for $2 at supermarkets. This one carries the name of a tour company, and the coloured bands were used to sort our tour into smaller groups, piled into boats and sent onto the swamp. This can’t go in my journal, but shows up a few days after I arrive home, floating around the bottom of my suitcase.

With it – sticks threaded with marshmallows, slapping the water’s surface in the hope of an alligator snap. Alligators prefer hot dogs – as a later tour, they were out of hot dogs. Floating, puffy marshmallows thrown at wild pigs, who these sweet treats were originally intended for. Pointing at animals – ‘Have we eaten that?’.

New Orleans: Where we ate more strange meat than anywhere else before.

This, in a blue rubber wrist-band.

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Neuroscientists have recently argued that when we remember something, we’re not recalling the original event, but the last time we remembered it. Each remembrance is an extra level of remove, spinning us further away from our actual lived experience. Eventually, what we remember might very well not resemble the experience at all. It’s Chinese whispers for the mind. Within this framework, there are clear and understandable reasons why we remember things differently to those around us, aside from subjective experience. But how does this work when we’re referring back to solid ‘evidence’ while doing the remembering? Can I misremember a photograph, when it’s sitting in front of me? Can I misunderstand automated data attached to my own tweet? Can a ticket stub be wrong?

Susan Sontag (in On Photography) says that words, like paintings and sketches, “can never be other than a narrowly selective interpretation”, whereas photographs “furnish evidence”.

“Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality,” she says.

Something in me believes this – the pointing and the freezing. So I interrogate the tweet’s New Orleans photograph for its memory of my time in that place.

It’s proof and it’s not. It definitely wasn’t 8.03am in New Orleans when I made the tweet, because we watched that band in the afternoon. So maybe it was 8.03am in Australia, and my Twitter was working on Melbourne’s time-zone. And I wasn’t only sitting, watching and listening. I was tweeting about it. Entirely aside from all the subjective elements of memory and whether what I wrote was literal, verifiable elements like time and date call themselves into question.

The photograph itself, though. I cling to its solidity, its seeming ability to capture the world verbatim, if miniature. After looking at this photograph a number of times though, I find it difficult to remember outside its frame. The props that our memory makes use of – those shoebox artifacts – can help solidify what’s contained within the frame of the artifact. However, while these pieces of proof seem solid and helpful, I have to wonder whether they’re also limiting.

When I look at photographs, I remember easily what’s inside the frame, and I can’t tell whether I remember it because it’s inside the frame, or because it’s what I can see. I have a picture of my brother and I standing next to a sunflower that’s taller than both of us. I feel sure that I remember the photograph being taken, but my memory stops short at the edges of the picture. Beyond the frame is a blur. I’m unsure, really, whether I remember looking at the camera and the moment of the shutter click. What do I assume because of what’s visible? How much of my memory is inference? Am I actually remembering this photograph being taken at all, or have I looked at this photograph enough times that I’m remembering the photograph itself as a stand-in for real memory?

Looking at this tweeted picture of New Orleans, I can see two men who have put down their trumpets. These bands don’t play tracks, they play riffs, and they play nonstop for fifteen, twenty minutes at a time. At intervals different members of the band play solo, letting others rest. I remember this from the picture. I remember a homeless man dancing, just outside the frame. I remember an old, old step I sat on, and the way the smooth concrete felt beneath me. I remember a feeling of peace.

Aside from the dancing man, this is all contained in the tweet – its words, the image and information attached to it. It allows me to piece together something – nothing exhaustive, nothing whole or round, but something. Perhaps it’s good enough – no more or less helpful than having written.

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Because while we might think of memory as easily accessible (either you remember or you don’t), the process of pulling memory out for show’n’tell is much messier than that. It’s not a filing cabinet to open and rifle through at will, but a strange place full of stairs, slides, canyons and waterfalls. That is to say, you could fall at any moment, and there’s plenty that’s hidden. Memory doesn’t return in a tidy package – it comes in a form more akin to collage. And not even collage, because collages have been glued in place. Perhaps memory is more like a shoebox full of ‘proof’ in many different mediums, a great deal of which are grainy or overblown photocopies. While writing forms a part of the picture, it’s surely not all of it.

And then you drop the shoe-box. In picking the bits and pieces up from the floor, a picture starts to form. It’s rough, and has gaping holes and contradictory overlaps. That’s how memory comes back.

Sam’s trip to the US and the NonfictioNOW conference was kindly supported by the UNESCO Melbourne City of Literature travel fund. 

Photo: Desert Drive by Mayr

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